Even within the variety of basic configurations, pickups can differ a lot in price, fuel economy, comfort, performance, safety, and reliability. Some of those factors can be interlinked. The best fuel economy goes hand in hand with lighter weight, smaller size, and modest power. A heavy trailer demands a heavy truck, with an accompanying fuel-economy penalty. And the more heavy duty a truck is, the worse it tends to ride.
With pickup trucks, it is important to buy what you need, resisting the temptation to overdo it. While it may be convenient to have extra cargo and towing capacity, you'll pay for it both upfront and through compromises (such as ride and fuel economy) over time.
The open cargo bed lends itself to serious chores, such as moving large appliances, bulky furniture, tools or equipment, motorcycles, snow blowers, and outdoors-only cargo such as wood chips, manure, and trash. Those are tasks you wouldn't want to (or couldn't do) with a minivan or SUV.
Pickup trucks are also well suited to towing boat, car, utility, and travel trailers. Manufacturer specifications for the vehicle and its driveline will note maximum cargo weight and towing capacities. You can choose original-equipment (OEM) towing packages or buy them in the aftermarket. Buying from the factory is probably the best choice, since installation might involve complex wiring for the trailer brakes and lights, special attachment points for the tow hitch, and accessories such as a transmission oil cooler. Further, the manufacturer-engineered packages come backed by the factory warranty.
While pickup trucks have impressive abilities, they also have inherent drawbacks. For example, they tend to guzzle gas whether they're loaded or not. For full-sized trucks, 13 to 15 mpg overall is par for the course. For a compact truck such as a Nissan Frontier or Toyota Tacoma, figure 15 to 17 mpg. Of course, the mileage only goes down when the vehicles are carrying cargo or pulling a trailer.
Among other considerations, the open bed leaves cargo vulnerable to the weather or theft. The trucks sit up high, which can make cabin access difficult, and the side rails of full-sized trucks are so high off the ground that loading and retrieving heavy items over the side is awkward, tiresome, or inconvenient. Trucks don't tend to have the most comfortable ride, though the ride does smooth out when they are carrying cargo in the bed. And the latest-generation trucks have seen the rides improved markedly. If you choose the handy extended cab, you might have to put up with a short load bed, typically five feet, which limits what you can carry. An eight-foot bed plus an extended cab makes for a very long vehicle that's hard to park and maneuver in tight spaces.
Ultimately, the most practical strategy for selecting a pickup is to go after a truck that meets your requirements without buying more than you need. Consider starting with our lists of Recommended trucks and working your way up the line from the smallest and least costly.